The terror of the silent Borneo jungle forced my body into perfect stillness.
For six hours, the boat on which I’d been an enchanted passenger, had meandered around and through the thick vines clogging the water’s surface, finding its way to this place from memory. The black Sekonyer River, rich in tannins and organic acids but poor in oxygen, reflected the trunkless, palm-fringed jungle and sky shapes like a mirror, and I, a housewife far from my white picket fence in Kansas, sat like a statue on the deck and listened.
As if a bolt of lightning struck the ground before me, his wild eyes caught mine! My heart skipped painfully and then began to beat double-time. Months of anticipation came to life. Droplets of fear soaked my clothing. The cool breeze lost its fight with the stillness of the heavy atmosphere. My tiny two-story boat hit the rubber tire buoys of the wood dock.
Clambering between the rafters of the dock, a huge orangutan moved toward me. Where were my shoes and my camera?
All I had was a bowl of rice, the twenty-seventh bowl of rice in nine days in the Borneo jungle. The bowl slipped from my sweaty hands, splattering sticky kernels everywhere. Was it me the orangutan smelled, or my rice?
“Oh captain, my captain!” I called out to the boat-man, trying to sound lighthearted, though the urgency of the situation was clear in my high-pitched, panicked tone. The captain of the tiny kloteck had never heard of the famous poem by Walt Whitman,-but he liked the sound of it, and crawled through an open hatch of the boat, carrying a steaming thermos of hot coffee. “I see him,” he said calmly, as he passed me and drew close to the side of the boat. “Orangutans, do not like hot things like steam and fire, and if I must, I will fling this into his face.”
I slipped my feet into my boots and snatched up my camera. I climbed out onto the dock, not really knowing what to expect from Wild Eyes, adrenaline and curiosity pushing me forward. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my safety net: my captain and his thermos of coffee steaming in the still jungle air.
The orangutan scuttled along the rotted planks of the dock, watchful yet inquisitive, and I moved forward quickly, filling half my camera’s memory card. “Don’t leave, don’t be afraid,” I heard myself whisper as I snapped the great beast’s picture over and over. This contact with an orangutan was more than I had even hoped possible.
Four or five days of travel in and out of confusing airports, trying, but failing, to understand the language spoken to me, sitting carefully erect in canoes until my back ached, lodging in hotels where I had to remove my shoes at the door—all of this had left me weary. The past week, teeny roadside stands offered rice and bread, the only safe food to eat. The high carbohydrate diet added to the exhaustion of my travels and robbed me of my energy. This boat journey today had provided much needed rest, a water-cradle with its soothing, gentle rocking motion. Finally, we’d found the boundary of the Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Borneo, an area of first-growth jungle established by the Indonesian Government for the protection of orangutans. And here, before me, feet from my feet, the very creature I had been hoping just to catch a glimpse of, looked directly into my face. I was fascinated, terrified, and excited beyond words.
Here at the Reserve, orangutans wandered about freely, but that didn’t mean they would approach humans as boldly as this one had. Orangutan babies destined for illegal sales, or those whose owners couldn’t keep them as pets found their way to freedom with the help of government organizations. Adaptation from captivity to the wild takes years for these animals but in the Reserve, they would have all the time they needed. The captured animals, now living free, would thrive on the water and dried milk mixed with bananas that were offered twice a day by the researchers in the park.
And it was one of these researchers who approached us at that moment and scared the wild eyed orang under the dock. The captain raised his hand in acknowledgment after the scientist agreed that I could take a walk in the park alone.
Aerial roots, adaptations from frequent flooding, hugged the dirt path that came up out of the peat swamp forest. Sweat streamed down my cheeks. I wondered how many leeches would find in my bare legs an opportunity for lunch.
A red ball of fur caused my feet to drop anchor. I stopped about fifteen feet in front of the male orangutan and reached for the camera. The orangutan took a few steps toward me, using his fists as walking sticks. His large cheek flaps shook thunderously and he lowered himself to the ground with a thump. Cautiously, I squatted down so we would be on the same level, and I concentrated on taking image after image of this enormous, hulking creature. I had come to Borneo hoping to capture the unexpected, and now here it was! The thrill turned out to be more than I could ever have imagined.
The orange giant kept the distance between us at fifteen feet, and watched as I took his picture. Strangely, although I was excited by his presence, I was unafraid. Orangs eat vegetables, fruits, and sometimes small animals like birds. The thought of this three hundred pound male attacking me never crossed my mind. After about thirty minutes, he decided to let me know that he was bored. Really bored. He yawned, opening his mouth ten feet wide! A loud growl rolled up from the depths of his mighty chest and his sharp teeth glistened in the late morning light! I moved back, feeling my heart stutter in my chest, wondering if I might have a heart attack. Would I have to wrestle an angry orang? Frightening visions drifted before me like a furious cloud.
My knees buckled as I stood.
I heard a whisper behind me, and turned to find the scientist signaling me to move toward him. His eyes were wide with dread and the urge to shout. But he didn’t raise his voice, he simply raised and lowered his hand slowly as if to say, move towards me calmly, and take your time.
Run, scream felt more appropriate than quiet, calm. A deep breath, slowed my pounding heart as I carefully rose to my feet. I didn’t want to further provoke the wonderful old man dressed in red by sudden movements, but then, I didn’t want to go so slowly that I became his dinner either. He thrashed his head around and growled low in his chest at any movement I made.
The scientist reached my arm and jerked. My long legs tripped over roots and vines as I ran toward the boat. Fearfully glancing behind with ragged gasping for air, I saw no movement.
Ahead, the captain sensing trouble said, “Missy, come with me. You will have a cool drink, you will bathe, refresh yourself.”
My captain steered the small craft away from the dock, directing it along the river and to a narrow inlet where brilliant orange water bubbled from a cool sulfur-fed spring. He handed me a bar of fragrant white soap, and then he and his first mate went aft to give me my privacy. I didn’t undress, though; I was so overheated and sweaty, I slipped into the water fully clothed, went under and emerged again, wet and cooler, but still shaking from my experience with the savage male orangutan. I lathered my body through my shorts and shirt. I scrubbed my hair, watching the grime and bits of twigs cascade slowly down my chest and arms on the fluffy white foam.
I took a breath and dropped into the rust-colored water again. Rising up, I tossed the bar of soap onto the bank, and waded out to swim. The orangey water slid over my body and as I swam further out, and my jangled nerves began to relax.
Bright orange on the bank caught my attention, and when I looked I was startled to find Wild Eyes, the orangutan which had greeted my boat at the dock earlier. He stood on the edge of the bank, watching me as I swam. I had not feared him before, but I feared him now. I had seen what an angry orangutan looked like. I looked towards the boat and began to stroke in that direction, watching Wild Eyes as I went, anxious that he might come into the water after me.
I noticed him studying the bar of soap that I’d abandoned on the shore. He leaned in close and appeared to sniff at its scent in the jungle air. Then, to my shock, he picked it up, and with long, furry arms he proceeded to rub the bar over himself, just as I had done only seconds earlier! He’d followed my boat here, it was obvious, and had watched from the trees as I bathed. Now he copied me, lathering himself up like a hairy construction worker after a long, hot day in the sun. He held the small bar in his long, human-looking fingers and rubbed the soap on his body until white frothy foam appeared on his red coat. He began to look less like an orangutan and more like the Abominable Snowman, and I laughed aloud at how wonderfully silly he had become! After he was finished playing with the soap foam, imitating my rendition of bath-time, he added a little trick of his own. He licked his arms clean!
I had not made a mistake coming here, I had not! As the darkness fell inches at a time on the boat, I struggled to record my day’s memories. But then, as if someone had turned on a switch, millions of Konang Konang, or fireflies, lit the narrow river path. It was as if the jungle was saying it was glad we were leaving, and it wanted to provide light for our safe journey through tangles of vines that the captain would not see in the darkness.
Jackie Chase travels the world meeting people from exotic cultures reaching for new challenges along the way. Even as a Midwestern housewife she felt compelled to share her adventurous nature with her four children. Jackie is more of a writer who travels versus a travel writer, sharing secrets from unique people whose lives help us all in the way we look at the world. Read more at http://culturesoftheworld.com/blog/